Man does not live by wine alone. Not even with beer to help him out. No, there are times in a fella’s life when he needs a garden to bring him peace and happiness.
The garden has been really productive this year. Between a stretch of good weather early on, a long dry summer and a new fertilizer regimen I’ve managed to harvest huge volumes of peas, zucchini blossoms and marrows, basil for days, cabbages, cauliflower, artichokes, cilantro, peppers, broccoli, carrots, spinach, currants, apples, et cetera, et cetera. Imagine the beauties you can make with this and the best puree food blender, great recipes, super easy and healthy.
There is one crop that often eludes me: tomatoes. We’re technically zone 8, but the garden is right on the water just off of Mud Bay in Crescent Beach. This means we get a lot of cool, damp nights in late summer, right at the moment when we need one last push of heat to finish ripening our tomatoes. This usually means blight, right when you’re hoping for a good crop.
The only two cures are 1) planting the earliest-ripening tomatoes you can find, and 2) good luck with the weather. This year we had both, and the tomatoes are coming in thick and fast–and ripe.
First things first, you gotta have some toasted tomato sandwiches.
But after a couple of dozen sandwiches (and so much bacon) with the tomatoes piling up, it was time to make some sauce.
The classic Italian pomodoro is quick tomato sauce that’s ready in less than half an hour, but it it uses canned Roma tomatoes, which are already very well-cooked during processing. For a sauce from fresh tomatoes you need a little more time and planning.
Step one, saute some onions and peppers until completely soft.
This takes a lot longer than cookbooks or internet recipes tell you. I’m not sure why everyone lies: “Cook until soft, 10 minutes or so.” No Debra, it’s more like a good 30-40 minutes to get onions thoroughly soft, and it’s crucial: if the onions aren’t soft before the tomatoes are added, the acid in the tomatoes will set the onions and they’ll stay disconcertingly firm no matter how long you cook the sauce. Olive oil, medium heat, lots of patience.
While they’re cooking down, cut up your tomatoes. They don’t have to be tiny, but you want to get them chunked up to expose their inner liquidity. Most recipes will tell you to remove the skins, but I can’t be bothered: they cook down to nothing, and I usually use this in a very rustic sauce (more on that below). If I was going to make it into tomato soup (easy, with a little cream and herbs) I’d put it through a blender and push it through a strainer. But I’m not, so I won’t, and this is what I got:
Once the onions are completely soft, add them to the pan.
The little brown things that look like Kalamata olives are actually black cherry tomatoes. They’re really bright tasting and very zippy and sweet. Even a few adds a lot of flavour to a sauce. The only other thing needed at this point is a a whole head of garlic chopped fine, and a healthy pinch of kosher salt–about a teaspoon. The salt at this point helps break down the tomatoes and bust cell membranes, releasing juice. It will need more salt before it’s used, but a pinch now is the way.
This has to cook down a long, long time, at least three hours. I was able to roast three batches of coffee, finish my business correspondence, edit an article I was working on, fight with a seagull and do some vacuuming while it cooked. You can tell it’s done when the clear liquid is reduced and the raw tomato taste is replaced by a sweet intensity of flavour.
Then it’s ready to eat or freeze: it’ll keep for about three months tightly sealed in a freezer. As a base tomato sauce it’s fantastic on pizza, in lasagna, or adapted to a soup or any number of others. But for me it shines best in a simple kjilkje. The food of my people, kjilkje is homemade noodles, usually served with bacon or sausage, a tomato sauce and lots of other Mennonites crowded around to eat vast plates of it and chase it down with hot, sweet tea.
This time I diced and fried some of my guanciale (Italian pork jowl bacon that I make) and topped the noodles with that, sauce, a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano and some fresh chopped basil.
In her excellent book, Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser says, “The extent to which we take everday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.” If you haven’t read the book, it’s a brilliant meditation on how we are shaped by the quotidian, and how little we appreciate the miracles of everyday life.
I got to thinking about this the other day when I mentioned that I was having grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. My friend Babins, a not-very-serious person whose humour I quite appreciate, noted that I only had to add a cup of weak tea to make it a perfect nursing home meal.
I get it: it does sound like a safe, nay, middling, choice for a meal. Something a harried mother might make a fussy kid, or a gentle meal for someone with limited appetite or shy a few horsepower in the mastication department.
But that really misses the potential haecceity of such a meal, the ‘thisness’ that makes it evoke powerful ideas and memories. I’ll wager that the picture above made a few people salivate, a few others tilt their heads and think about getting something to eat, and a few might even have misted up, thinking of the comfort and safety that such a meal conjures in the heart. A grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup isn’t a simple meal: it’s a powerful spell that can not only banish hunger, but fill the soul with contentment and soothe a mind battered by the concerns of the day.
But only if you do it right. I have powerful ideas about what constitutes ‘right’ in the case of grilled cheese (the soup shown above is homemade from tomatoes from my garden, but that’s a blog for another day). I’d rather go hungry (and let’s face it, I can afford to go hungry once in a while) than eat a sandwich with lousy, squishy bread and cheese made from plastic products, fried in a waxy yellow substance suitable more as a floor wax than a butter substitute. Here’s what I do when the urge for crispy, unctuous grilled cheese strikes me.
Quality is of the essence, simplicity the watchword. Use top quality bread–I bought this from a local bakery, but if I have time I make my own. Day-old bread is a little better: too soft and it’s gummy. Slices need to be thick enough for structure, but thin enough to heat through easily. Butter–and only butter, please–is a given, but cheese needs a more thorough discussion.
If I’m making a melt or serving the sandwich alongside something with contrasting flavours I might choose a mellow or nutty cheese, like Muenster or Jarlsberg. If I had a load of spicy pickles I might choose Raclette, which I love. But for the sweetness of tomato soup I prefer cheddar. Choosing a sharp, well-aged version is crucial, but don’t get one that’s terrifically old or high in fat: it still has to melt effectively and ultra high-fat or low-protein cheese can simply liquify under heat, leaving a greasy mess. Don’t use too much: the cheese is for flavour and holding the crispy bread together. A thick gummy layer will cool down and be gloppy before you can finish eating your lunch.
You only need two tools, a frying pan and a spatula. Step one, preheat the pan over medium-low and add a teaspoon of butter to it–don’t butter the bread, because that will put way too much grease in the finished sandwich.
Next up, place both slices of bread in the pan. No cheese yet. let them gently brown for a few minutes to heat and crisp up on one side.
Take the bread out of the pan and assemble the sandwich, crispy side in with the cheese. Ho ho ho! It’s going to be crispy everywhere!
Add another teaspoon of butter to the pan and return the assembled sandwich to it. Careful not to scorch: don’t walk away here, as it’s crucial to get a nice crunch on the outside without scorch. You can flip it a few times if you’re getting too hot on one side. It should only take another three minutes or so.
Serve with your favorite condiment. I’ll often have a little hot mustard to dip the edge of the sandwich in as I go, but more often these days I’ll have a little Sambal Oleek, a crushed chili paste that suits my palate. Also, if you have some homemade pickles, they go down a treat.
How was it? Short lived, unlike the comfort and satiety that it gave me. Now where’s that cup of tea?
Times have been crazy busy at Chaos Manor, both personally and professionally–I’m really excited about Master Vintner, and all the good things we’ve got going on over there–don’t miss my ridiculously controversial blog post, Lies, Damned Lies, And Sulfites: The Facts. I love that topic, especially the angry mail I get from it.
I’m going to do a couple of garden updates this month, and a couple of cooking specials, sharing my love of good food to pair with good wine–and good friends. Many of my garden crops have come in and gone, still others are producing.
There’s currant jam to make, black currant wine, I made a bunch of spanakopita with my spinach crop, and I found time to make a batch of delicious head cheese.
I’ve been brewing pretty frequently as well: I’ve got half a dozen wine projects on the go, experimenting with extended maceration with grapeskins in wine kits and I’ve got a couple of hundred litres of cider to process.
First things first though: I’ve got a nice little dinner planned with minted peas, new potatoes, carrots and broccoli. Fresher food you can not get, and I’m pleased to be eating from my own garden.
It’s been a long radio silence from me for reasons varied and sundry, the principle of which is that I’ve been rascally busy for the last two months, with matters professional and personal. I know that professional technically includes ‘keeping my blog updated’, but that’s one of those important-but-not-urgent things that gets pushed back enough that it sometimes disappears altogether.
Part of my occupation was my community garden plot. We’ve had an extraordinarily good spring and summer–come to think of it, we basically skipped winter as well, with a long, warm period extending from November through to the middle of April, when suddenly it was summer–no spring, no tentative sprouting of plants, just a drop-kick right into full-on heat and sunshine.
This is a pretty big contrast to past years when we were joking about ‘Juneuary’, and bemoaning the endless grey rains, conveniently forgetting the fact that we choose to live in an actual rainforest. Normally I’d plant my garden on the May long weekend (the Monday before May 25th) but this year I had a lot of work to do and got it in on the last week of April.
Part of the work was building five new boxes. I have a community garden located on the site of a reclaimed marsh. While it may have been fertile one hundred years ago, the soil is pretty much hardpan clay, with a few inches of topsoil to cover. For a decade I rototilled, added sand, peat moss, compost and other amendments, but the soil quickly ate that up and returned to its peevish ways.
Two years ago I gave up and built some garden boxes. I make them deeper than is usual, and it seemed to work out really well–the results have been beyond what I could have expected. I expanded from three big boxes and three smaller ones, adding four big boxes and one broad but shallow one for vines like zucchini and squash.
It was quite a bit of work, between pounding stakes, screwing boxes together and then filling them, wheelbarrow by back-breaking wheelbarrow with soil. As I usually claim, I’m in it for the fresh air and exercise: tasty vegetables are just a by-product. But what a by-product! Between top-quality soil and an early, hot and extended growing season, things have been going crazy.
Unfortunately, the garden is a bit disruptive: it’s on an old farm site, but it borders a nesting sanctuary and a marsh. As such, there are marshy-type creatures there, including some that love fresh garden produce. The worst are beavers: you wouldn’t believe the damage a couple of beavers can do to a garden in only a few hours, especially to grape vines (I’ve lost four over the years) and fruit trees–a decade of growing and poof! It’s part of a dam.
When the beavers get bad, the wildlife service comes and hauls them away, relocating them. One doesn’t bother beavers without the help of a professional. First, they’re protected and only licensed hunters and trappers can harvest beavers. Second, they’re incredibly dangerous, and routinely kill people who try to interfere with them.
Beavers aren’t the worst, though, as they’re a once in a while animal. I save most of my ire for rats. Sadly, it’s my fault they’re trouble. If you think about it, the average rat is a timid riverbank rodent eating seeds and the occasional bird’s egg. Plunk down eighty or a hundred garden plots next to that riparian paradise and all the rats see is about a trillion calories of easy-to-get deliciousness. They multiply out of proportion to the natural landscape and start raiding. This year I finally took action, netting my corn and setting traps for them. While it worked, I’m not happy with having to murder rodents whose only crime was to recognise an easy meal. Thus is ever the life of an ethical omnivore.
Aside from the garden, I’ve been busy other ways. The building next to me (as in, right up against my suite) burnt to the ground.
That was exciting, especially the part where the flames shot up over the garden wall and incinerated my magnolia tree.
Sheesh. Not something you want to see out your bedroom window.
This year I did a day long boot camp seminar, teaching a class full of people advanced techniques for making wine, demo’ing equipment and doing things like post-fermentation elevage, as well as four other lectures, an author’s round table, and a couple more.
Those people at Winemaker beat me like the family mule sometimes.
Fortunately there was time to hang out with old friends, enjoy a few noshes
Winemaker was fun, if a bit of a whirlwind. It was really nice to catch up with my pal Wes Hagen. We just don’t get to see each other often enough. As a consequence, we tend to act like ninnies when we do, which is always fun.
After Winemaker it was time to gear up for the AHA national conference in San Diego. I’ve wanted to go to an AHA conference for at least 20 years, but always had some corporate drudgery that made it impossible to attend. This year I went under the auspices of my good friends at Northern Brewer, which got me in everywhere and helped me make some new friends.
Not only did I get to hang out at the NB booth, I got to do some backstagey stuff, like drink a whole keg of Russian Imperial Stout at an afterparty, plus hang out with a thousand-odd homebrewers and taste some of the best dang beers in the whole world, all in one convenient place.
As part of the trip I rented a car and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. It’s the most beautiful drive you can imagine–and just when you think it can’t possibly get any more gorgeous, it does.
I even got in a little whale-watching, when I decided to pull over for the first time in 2 hours and picked the only spot on the coast with a deceased mammal washed up.
I also made my traditional stop at the Tonga Room. It’s the finest Tiki Bar on earth, located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. There’s something about a restaurant that serves drinks the size of punchbowls, and has a boat floating in the middle of the room, the better to facilitate the occasional indoor rainstorm.
Returning home, I had a load of projects to get to. First up, a 4th of July barbecue. No, not grilling: a real barbecue.
Also, there was a seafood boil.
I was also part of the Tri-Cities Cask Festival, and we really had a great time doing our first beers-from-outside-of-Vancouver-city tasting. I was media man, but managed to get in on the keg tapping action (note: all pictures courtesy of Vancouver Photoworks).
I did a little brewing as well, trying to keep my skills sharp.
Let’s see, what else have I been doing . . . oh yes, I conducted a Scotch tasting.
Made some epic sandwiches . . .
Spent some time with my now very old gentleman cat.
And I worked on my winemaking.
Speaking of which, lots of good things coming up in the Master Vintner winemaking world! But this post is long enough with the catching up already. Tune in soon yet more will be revealed.
I’ve had a busy couple of weeks: between staying ahead of my garden and keeping up with writing projects and clients I haven’t had a lot of free time.
Fortunately I’ve got a break: I’m flying off on an exciting big city adventure! Toronto here I come. Well, GTA, here I come . . . I like Toronto, but in 20 years of travelling there several times a year, I think I’ve only actually spent a total of four days in the city, so it still seems like a strange place to me, but business is business and travelling for pleasure never seems to take me to the exotic places in my own country.
On the other hand, all this will be waiting for me when I return!
I’ve got some cool new stuff in the pipeline: I’m shooting video, but while I’m great in front of the camera, I’m not as competent behind it. I hope I’ll have something better than a blooper reel next week.
I’m also bent on getting some all-grain brewing done. One of my current projects is to get my full brewing setup back on-line, and it’s happening. I’m drilling holes in pots, connecting mash screens and generally planning stuff up–wait until you see my new grain grinder (one of the video topics to come).
Beyond that, as always I’ve got a million words to write and many other promises to keep. Hurray for self-employment, my boss never lets up on me!
Whoops! Time to pack, and I’ve got to water the gardens before I leave.